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A Layman and A Legendary Chef

Anand Pillai Wednesday, March 6, 2024
A Layman and A Legendary Chef

Who is the first Indian chef to receive Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India?

Today I can only answer this question with a heavy heart, because Chef Padma Shri Imtiaz Qureshi is no more with us! He left to his heavenly abode on February 16, 2024.

The Chef, Imthiaz Qureshi who is credited with reviving and popularizing of Awadhi cuisine, the creator of popular restaurant brands-Bukhara and Dumpukth, was the recipient of Padma Shri award.

He was born in Lucknow on February 2, 1931.His forefathers were Chefs to the rulers of Awad for 200 years. Little Imthiaz started his culinary journey at the age of nine with his uncle who was tasked with the feeding10,000 soldiers of British Raj. He later joined working with Krishna Caterers and catered for Indian Army during the Indo- China war of 1962. It was during this period that he become close to C.B Gupta, then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Once the former chief minister was hosting Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru. The Chef Imthias was asked to prepare the meals. Out of the vegetarian sensitivities of Gupta and other guests, he turned the traditional meat dishes into vegetarian items. He substituted the meat in Shami Kebab with lotus steam, chilli, onion lemon and orange., Murg Mussallam with Jackfruit and brinjal instead of chicken and Fish Mussalam with bottle guard instead of fish. All the guest thought they were eating non veg dishes. When they demanded vegetarian items, he explained to them that all those dishes were vegetarian. Pandit Nehru was awestruck.

In 1979, he was recruited by ITC group, when they opened Maurya Sheraton hotel in Delhi. It was there he reached the zenith of his carrier. He opened the iconic restaurants of Bhkhara and Dumpukth in Maurya and soon they became world famous eateries.

My completion of hotel management education and starting of a career coincided with the opening of ITC Welcome Group’s Grand Maratha Sheraton hotel at Mumbai in 2000. I joined the hotel in F &B service. While working in Room Service, I would be often asked to help in Bukhara restaurant. Their busy schedule was very demanding. I also liked it because there I was able to see many celebrities. Until then I had enjoyed watching Sachin Tendulker, Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan only on the TV screen. I had a chance to taste famous Bukhara dishes like Murg Malai Kabab, Sikandari Ran (Marinated lamb leg cooked in tandoor) and the iconic dish Dal Bukhra also.

No sooner they opened the ‘Dum Pukth’ restaurant in Mumbai. While Bhukhara was mostly about Kebabs cooked in tandoor, this restaurant was created based on Dum Pukth style of cooking. ‘Dum’ means steam and ‘Pukth’ is cooking on slow fire. Ingredients which are mostly meat and fish, are placed in traditional heavy bottomed clay pots along with spices, herbs and sealed with a ring of ‘atta’ and then cooked. This is to ensure that the food cooks in its own juice and retains the flavor within. When this is opened in front of the customer, aroma which is trapped inside fills the air. The newly added savories, Dumpukth Biryanies and Kakori kabab soon become a sensation. Meanwhile, I heard a lot about Imthiaz Qureshi and developed a keen desire to meet him.

One day, during the lunch session, a big man walked in wearing a silk kurtha. A senior colleague next to me whispered-

“ Chef Imthiaz Qureshi”

His strong and burly body, large arms and big mustache resembled that of a Wrestler. I directed him to a corner table and he politely told me with a smile.

“Make me sit in the center table. Let people see that Imthiaz has come. “

That was my first interaction with him. Later working in room service, I would often be entrusted with picking up his dinner from the kitchen and deliver in the room. He was always nice and polite even with a beginner like me.

Those days, internet was an evolving technology and accessible to common man only in Cyber cafes. Had I known known about his illustrious career, I could have clarified most of my doubts and I would have taken time in speaking about his experiences of serving Queen Elizabath 11, Jawharlal Nehru, Indra Gandhi, Bill Clinton , Tony Blair and many other dignitaries around the world.

How many like M.F. Hussain, the great painter was much impressed with the food of Bukhara! His painting of the trademark horses on the canvas while having food, is a testimony for the love of the cuisine served in Bukhara. This picture is now featured on the apron which is given to the guests.

During his presidential visit to India, Bill Clinton had food from Bukhara and his feedback about the food is remarkable. (His successors Obama and Trump also dined in Bukhara.) Had my knowledge about his culinary journey was as good as now, I could have asked for his experiences of cooking for them.

It was Imthiaz Qureshi who revived the ‘Benami Kheer” which was one of the favorites of the former president of India, A P J Abdul Kalam. It is also known as Leson Ki Kheer (Garlic pudding). Its origin can be traced back to the royal court of Awadhi Nawabs. In order to cook this, garlic is blanched in hot water added with vinegar several times to remove its pungent flavor and make it completely odorless. An interesting and intriguing fact is that the royal cooks who were very secretive about their cooking practices, coined the name “ Benami” which literally means no name. This name is given in order to keep the prime ingredient a secret.

To understand the true Genius of Imthiaz Qureshi, you have to dine in Bhkhara and Dumpukth. Though an expensive option, the experience is definitely worth the money.

In 2003, I landed up in Kuwait and never got a chance to meet him again. This article is a humble tribute to the Legendery Chef, from a person who got chance to serve him for several days. Though impossible, I wish to serve him once again. He was so loving, so simple, yet a champion in his profession.

May the chef, Padma Shree Imthiaz Qureshi Rest in Peace. His legacy will continue to inspire thousands of professionals in the generation to come.

Imtiaz Qureshi will forever be remembered.

Good Bye Dear Chef.

Anand Pillai holds an extensive experience in food industry, complemented by his fervent passion for writing about it. Currently serves as a Sales Manager at Al Naji Infotech company.


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Express your comment on this article

 
Soja
Monday, March 11, 2024
Anand is someone who combines his passion for food with a flair for writing. The result is a delectable dish whose taste lingers in your mouth long after you finish devouring it. 😄
Being a fan of Chef Imtiaz Qureshi myself, this article struck a chord with me. What an enriching experience it must have been to be so closely associated with a legend ! Thank you for sharing your experience with us, letting us have a glimpse of his amazing personality.

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